Imagine a robot right now. You’re probably picturing, say, C-3PO or Rosie the Maid. Maybe you’re remembering Lion Force Voltron or The Robot from Lost in Space. Perhaps you’re a more flexible thinker and you’re imagining an afternoon drive with KITT.
What do they all have in common? They’re cold, metal, angular, and, well, they look like machines. A new medical robot designed at the National University of Ireland, Galway could change all that, though.
The “robot” in question is more of a soft silicone sleeve laced with air actuators that allow the device to contract and, when placed around a heart, keep it beating. It’s designed to save people from cardiac arrest in situations where the heart isn’t doing what it should do: beat.
It’s already been successfully tested on pigs. In the tests, cardiac arrest was chemically induced. According to lead author Ellen Roche, “[they] ended up using a pacemaker to override the electrical activity of the heart, and pace it so we were controlling the rate at which the heart beat. Then, wish the same signal, we were controlling our device.”
This isn’t just another pacemaker, either. Those use ventricular assist devices, implanted pumps that assist blood out of a weak heart. In those cases, though, patients need to take blood thinners to reduce the risk of blood clotting. This can lead to all sorts of complications. In the case of the new soft robot, the heart is beating as it should, just with some external help. And in the case of this robot, blood flow was increased through the aorta by 50 percent.
If this seems like something out of a David Cronenberg movie, you’d be right: soft robots made of silicone and rubber are widely being developed for medical applications and they look an awful lot like the kind of trippy contraptions you’d find in Videodrome or Dead Ringers.
That said, they’re not scary. Instead, they’re meant to save lives. And squish our hearts.